A book out next Tuesday — Between a Wok and a Dead Place— and another spread out on the desk. Of course the little gremlins of doubt are nattering at me. I have learned that they can be useful at times, when they spur us to improve our work, to go deeper into character and motivation, to reach for a better phrase or keener observation, to sharpen the dialogue, but when they tell me I’m not any good, I tell them to go read a book in the corner or nap with the cat and we’ll talk later. And then I get to work and trust we’ll all be in a better place next time.
“Accept that your work will never feel satisfactory, because without that self-critical element, we’d never try to improve. Our yearning to accomplish more is what makes it possible to endure a learning process that for quite some time may offer little promise of external reward. . . . [I]t isn’t up to us to believe in ourselves, it’s up to us to do the work.” – Kathryn Craft, “The Hidden—but Crucial—Mad Skill,” Writer Unboxed, 12/9/21
I’ve got a new mystery coming in just 10 days — Between a Wok and a Dead Place, out July 18 — so no surprise that when I scanned my collection of quotes about art, writing, and creativity, this one jumped out at me.
“The detective isn’t your main character, and neither is your villain. The main character is the corpse. The detective’s job is to seek justice for the corpse. It’s the corpse’s story, first and foremost.”
— Ross Macdonald, a pen name for the Canadian-American mystery writer Kenneth Millar (1915-83, creator of Lew Archer, one of my favorite detectives
“As a child I was taught that to tell the truth was often painful. As an adult I have learned that not to tell the truth is more painful, and that the fear of telling the truth — whatever the truth may be — that fear is the most painful sensation of a moral life.”
June Jordan, American poet and activist (1936-2002), in Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays (quoted by James Clear in his newsletter)
(Welded sculpture of heron at Flathead Lake; author photo)
“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp … The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.”
— Muriel Spark, in A Far Cry from Kensington, quoted by my friend Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen
I don’t know whether Spark was being literal or ironic. My own cat loves my desk chair — he’s about the same color as the leather, creating a hazard for us both — and he’s been known to stomp across my desk and step on the keyboard, even sending an email full of periods once. And I regularly apologize on Zoom calls for the loud cries of the cat protesting being shut out of the room. But mostly, he reads (with his eyes shut) or supervises. Could I do the work without him? Maybe, but I’d rather not try.
I’m a firm believer in learning from artists working in other disciplines, such as music and painting. My husband and I recently attended an opening at the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell, Montana, for our friend, painter Haakon Ensign, who quoted the great painter, illustrator, and sculptor Frederick Remington as saying “you need detail, but the right detail.”
Or as a contrasting pair of American novelists have put it:
“Be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.” — Henry James
“One of your gifts as a writer is that you are a sensitive witness to the Universe.” – Johnny Worthen, speaking at the 2023 Pikes Peak Writers Conference.
(Painting: W. Haakon Ensign, oil on canvas, from the exhibit W. Haakon Ensign: Wildlife and Water — Lucky in the Flathead, June 2 — Aug 6, 2023, Hockaday Museum of Art. Look closely for the artist’s dog, Lucky, sniffing the ground just above the lakeshore.)
“So, yes, discipline is critical, just like all the teachers say. And there is definitely stuff that needs doing that is just never going to be fun like paying bills and cleaning the cat box. But I suggest that instead of being disciplined about hating on yourself to get things done, try being disciplined about remaining close to what brings you joy. It takes a lot of courage, actually. See what happens.”
– Susan Piver, “Getting Stuff Done by Not Being Mean to Yourself” (2010 blog post)
“Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception. The surest way to provoke the imagination, then, is to seek out environments you have no experience with. They may have nothing to do with your area of expertise. It doesn’t matter. Because the same systems in the brain carry out both perception and imagination, there will be cross talk.”
Last weekend, I attended the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs, giving presentations on building character, setting, and common mistakes writers make about the law. Barbara O’Neal, the keynote speaker at lunch on Sunday, gave a powerful talk focused on a topic for all creators: What is yours to do? What is the work only you can do? She’s reprised those themes in this essay, drawn from the talk, on Writer Unboxed.
daffodils blooming between the cracks in a rock
Lean into that, I say. Into the stories, the paintings, the songs, only you can tell, paint, or sing. The gardens only you can plant. The joys only you can give, the sorrows only you can ease.